The fight for the 16th District state Senate seat took a personal turn Tuesday at a public discussion at the Flushing Library. Democratic candidates served up snark and sharp talk amid politicking, with jabs ranging from the familial to the financial.
Political newcomer John Messer of Oakland Gardens and repeat candidate Isaac Sasson of Flushing flanked incumbent Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) at the candidate forum sponsored by the MinKwon Center for Community Action.
About 150 people attended the event that was moderated by Joyce Moy, a member of the CUNY Asian American/Asian Research Institute.
Moy first asked the candidates which issues they believe are most important and why, and they largely agreed that rising unemployment and declining education need to be addressed.
Messer, a lawyer on Long Island, said he would advocate for job creation, fight school overcrowding and push funding for senior services.
Sasson seconded Messer’s focus on job creation. Sasson, who won $13 million with a Quick Pick lottery ticket in 2007 and then became a politically active philanthropist, supports small business incentives.
Meanwhile, Stavisky also advocated mom-and-pop shop support, saying she wanted to protect jobs by making New York an “easier place to do business.”
Citing language proficiency and access problems in Queens’ immigrant communities, like the Chinese and Korean ones in Flushing, Moy asked the candidates if they would push for a bill requiring official government documents be printed in the area’s top five languages.
Sasson said that it’s “shameful that our state senator doesn’t have a full-time [Chinese or Korean-speaking staffer]” and would make sure to have a diverse political team.
Stavisky volleyed back with a call for increased language skills. She called immigrants the “backbone of the community” and vowed to do more to help them.
All three candidates also voiced their disapproval of Arizona’s new immigration law, which permits law enforcement agencies to check the citizenship status of detained individuals. Messer, who gave particular focus on business throughout the evening, emphasized the economic element.
Immigration reform, he said, could be an economic boost. By bringing immigrants into the open, many could purchase health insurance and homes, giving a well needed jolt to the marketplace.
Both Stavisky and Sasson said immigration laws must be enforced at the federal level. Sasson wound up parlaying his answer into a call for legislative term limits in Albany, too. He called the state Legislature “dysfunctional” and said term cutoffs are the way to make sure lawmakers deal with hot-button topics like immigration.
He faulted Stavisky, who has held the seat since 1999, for disparities in state funding to Asian-interest organizations. “Whose fault is that?” he asked. “You’ve got to blame your senator.”
The forum got exceedingly heated when speakers were asked to comment on domestic violence. All candidates said they’d boost education and prevention efforts. When Stavisky mentioned her involvement in investigating former state Sen. Hiram Monserrate — who was convicted in a misdemeanor assault charge against his girlfriend — a woman in the audience repeatedly yelled “Leave him alone.”
There was another snippy exchange between Sasson and Stavisky. The former said the senator acted with conflicts of interest because of her politically involved son, Evan, an official with The Parkside Group, a consulting firm. Later, Stavisky responded to Sasson with a comment contrasting her years as a middle-class schoolteacher with Sasson’s sudden wealth.
Overall, organizers and attendees said they were happy with the forum for introducing the candidates to constituents.
Steven Choi, MinKwon’s executive director, said he was pleased with attendance and the outcome of the forum. “We really thought it was important,” Choi said.
Betty Chan, who lives in the district, said that the event definitely will affect how she’s voting in the primaries. Chan is not sure who she’s going to pick, she said, but has a lot of additional information to consider.
“It’s good to see them answer questions, because it’s real. I’ve never met them before,” Chan said.